Bone-modifying agents for men with prostate cancer and bone metastases

Review question

In this systematic review we aimed to compare different agents to prevent skeletal complications in men with prostate cancer and bone metastases and to provide a ranking of these treatment options. We looked at different outcomes like reduction in pain, prevention of different skeletal-related events, occurrence of adverse events, and quality of life. We wanted to find out which bone-modifying agent is most effective while causing the fewest adverse events when given as supportive treatment to men with prostate cancer and bone metastases.


The prostate is a gland in the male reproductive system. Prostate cancer can spread to other parts of the body (called metastases) including the bones. Bone metastases in men with prostate cancer may lead to skeletal complications like fractures or pain. Different bone-modifying agents are used as supportive treatment to prevent skeletal complications through formation of new bone mass. Until now no clear recommendations could be given about which agents are the most effective while also causing the fewest adverse events. We used statistical methods to compare all agents with each other based on the available information.

Study characteristics

We conducted thorough searches in various databases until 23 March 2020. We included 25 studies comparing different bone-modifying agents with each other or against no further treatment or placebo treatment (dummy treatment) in men with prostate cancer and bone metastases.

Key results

Twenty-one of the 25 included studies reported data for our predefined patient-relevant outcomes. A total of seven different agents were included, six bisphosphonates (zoledronic acid, risedronate, pamidronate, alendronate, etidronate, and clodronate) and one other agent, denosumab. Analysis was only possible for each outcome of interest separately. Considering skeletal-related events, zoledronic acid and denosumab appeared to be the most effective, but also seemed to cause the most and worst adverse events (like renal impairment for treatment with zoledronic acid and osteonecrosis of the jaw for denosumab). Most of the included studies did not report data on quality of life or reported it very poorly, so that we could not analyse this outcome combining the information from different studies. The results were therefore described with words.

Certainty of the evidence

We rated the certainty of the evidence as high to low for the different agents and outcomes. A limitation of this review is that an overall ranking considering all outcomes at the same time is not possible. In order to make an informed decision about which treatment option should be used, one therefore must look at all the outcomes of interest and balance the pros and cons of each option.

Authors' conclusions: 

When considering bone-modifying agents as supportive treatment, one has to balance between efficacy and acceptability. Results suggest that Zoledronic acid likely increases both the proportion of participants with pain response, and the proportion of participants experiencing adverse events However, more trials with head-to-head comparisons including all potential agents are needed to draw the whole picture and proof the results of this analysis.

Read the full abstract...

Different bone-modifying agents like bisphosphonates and receptor activator of nuclear factor-kappa B ligand (RANKL)-inhibitors are used as supportive treatment in men with prostate cancer and bone metastases to prevent skeletal-related events (SREs). SREs such as pathologic fractures, spinal cord compression, surgery and radiotherapy to the bone, and hypercalcemia lead to morbidity, a poor performance status, and impaired quality of life. Efficacy and acceptability of the bone-targeted therapy is therefore of high relevance. Until now recommendations in guidelines on which bone-modifying agents should be used are rare and inconsistent.


To assess the effects of bisphosphonates and RANKL-inhibitors as supportive treatment for prostate cancer patients with bone metastases and to generate a clinically meaningful treatment ranking according to their safety and efficacy using network meta-analysis.

Search strategy: 

We identified studies by electronically searching the bibliographic databases Cochrane Controlled Register of Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, and Embase until 23 March 2020. We searched the Cochrane Library and various trial registries and screened abstracts of conference proceedings and reference lists of identified trials.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomized controlled trials comparing different bisphosphonates and RANKL-inihibitors with each other or against no further treatment or placebo for men with prostate cancer and bone metastases. We included men with castration-restrictive and castration-sensitive prostate cancer and conducted subgroup analyses according to this criteria.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently extracted data and assessed the quality of trials. We defined proportion of participants with pain response and the adverse events renal impairment and osteonecrosis of the jaw (ONJ) as the primary outcomes. Secondary outcomes were SREs in total and each separately (see above), mortality, quality of life, and further adverse events such as grade 3 to 4 adverse events, hypocalcemia, fatigue, diarrhea, and nausea. We conducted network meta-analysis and generated treatment rankings for all outcomes, except quality of life due to insufficient reporting on this outcome. We compiled ranking plots to compare single outcomes of efficacy against outcomes of acceptability of the bone-modifying agents. We assessed the certainty of the evidence for the main outcomes using the GRADE approach.

Main results: 

Twenty-five trials fulfilled our inclusion criteria. Twenty-one trials could be considered in the quantitative analysis, of which six bisphosphonates (zoledronic acid, risedronate, pamidronate, alendronate, etidronate, or clodronate) were compared with each other, the RANKL-inhibitor denosumab, or no treatment/placebo. By conducting network meta-analysis we were able to compare all of these reported agents directly and/or indirectly within the network for each outcome. In the abstract only the comparisons of zoledronic acid and denosumab against the main comparator (no treatment/placebo) are described for outcomes that were predefined as most relevant and that also appear in the 'Summary of findings' table. Other results, as well as results of subgroup analyses regarding castration status of participants, are displayed in the Results section of the full text.

Treatment with zoledronic acid probably neither reduces nor increases the proportion of participants with pain response when compared to no treatment/placebo (risk ratio (RR) 1.46, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.93 to 2.32; per 1000 participants 121 more (19 less to 349 more); moderate-certainty evidence; network based on 4 trials including 1013 participants). For this outcome none of the trials reported results for the comparison with denosumab.

The adverse event renal impairment probably occurs more often when treated with zoledronic acid compared to no treatment/placebo (RR 1.63, 95% CI 1.08 to 2.45; per 1000 participants 78 more (10 more to 180 more); moderate-certainty evidence; network based on 6 trials including 1769 participants). Results for denosumab could not be included for this outcome, since zero events cannot be considered in the network meta-analysis, therefore it does not appear in the ranking.

Treatment with denosumab results in increased occurrence of the adverse event ONJ (RR 3.45, 95% CI 1.06 to 11.24; per 1000 participants 30 more (1 more to 125 more); high-certainty evidence; 4 trials, 3006 participants) compared to no treatment/placebo. When comparing zoledronic acid to no treatment/placebo, the confidence intervals include the possibility of benefit or harm, therefore treatment with zoledronic acid probably neither reduces nor increases ONJ (RR 1.88, 95% CI 0.73 to 4.87; per 1000 participants 11 more (3 less to 47 more); moderate-certainty evidence; network based on 4 trials including 3006 participants).

Compared to no treatment/placebo, treatment with zoledronic acid (RR 0.84, 95% CI 0.72 to 0.97) and denosumab (RR 0.72, 95% CI 0.54 to 0.96) may result in a reduction of the total number of SREs (per 1000 participants 75 fewer (131 fewer to 14 fewer) and 131 fewer (215 fewer to 19 fewer); both low-certainty evidence; 12 trials, 5240 participants).

Treatment with zoledronic acid and denosumab likely neither reduces nor increases mortality when compared to no treatment/placebo (zoledronic acid RR 0.90, 95% CI 0.80 to 1.01; per 1000 participants 48 fewer (97 fewer to 5 more); denosumab RR 0.93, 95% CI 0.77 to 1.11; per 1000 participants 34 fewer (111 fewer to 54 more); both moderate-certainty evidence; 13 trials, 5494 participants).

Due to insufficient reporting, no network meta-analysis was possible for the outcome quality of life. One study with 1904 participants comparing zoledronic acid and denosumab showed that more zoledronic acid-treated participants than denosumab-treated participants experienced a greater than or equal to five-point decrease in Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy-General total scores over a range of 18 months (average relative difference = 6.8%, range −9.4% to 14.6%) or worsening of cancer-related quality of life.

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